Why do we practice meditation?

Do people share fundamentally similar objectives in their persistence with meditation practice or do those from different traditions have unique aims? Interviews with those practicing meditation suggest a variety of reasons (often unclear) but with one underlying theme: that people generally seek a clearer understanding of existence or closer connection to the spiritual, and that the increasing clarity and connection help in the experience of daily living (West 1986, 1987). Here are some explanations for why they meditate offered by longterm meditators from a variety of different traditions:

It’s my central belief, the heart of me. I feel I should honour that part of me . . . all of it leads up to the purest expression of me.

I enjoy meditation because physically it feels good and it’s interesting in terms of the insight that I get into myself and the more I can watch all this stuff going on and accept it, the more I can reveal myself to others.

It’s the heart of life . . . It makes life whole . . . you can make it take in the whole day or everybody you know or everything you have to do. It has the sense of pulling everything together, so it’s a real centre.

I meditate because it calms me down and I see it as the only real hope to get rid of suffering by gaining complete control over the mind so that eventually your thoughts, feelings and actions are totally positive.

It’s a way of being in touch with the Universe.

Meditation provides me with space. It’s a time of caring for myself, free from demands and needs and a time of being peacefully alone and still to allow my pure and perfect self to open more and more.

(West 1987, p. 11)

To what extent is there a consensus of objectives amongst the many traditions that encourage the practice of meditation? Goleman (he of emotional intelligence fame!) argued that there is a common objective hidden in the differing folds of customs, language, and symbols (Goleman 1977). In the Hindu Bhakti tradition it is believed that love for the deity, which is expressed in regular meditation on the name of the god, changes to a transcendental love:

‘. . . the devotee loses all sense of decorum and moves about the world unattached . . . His heart melts through love as he habitually chants the name of his beloved lord . . .’ (Srimad Bhagavata)

Eventually, beyond this state, the devotee will arrive at a point where he or she perceives the divine in everything and everyone:

The devotee need no longer observe any special forms or symbols for worship. He worships in his heart, the world having become his altar (Goleman 1977).

In the Jewish Kabbalah, it is believed that there are multiple levels of reality with corresponding levels of consciousness. Most of us are at the lowest levels and live very mechanical lives of habit and routine with little awareness of our existence. Through meditation, according to the Kabbalist view, we first become disillusioned with the mechanical games of life, and then begin to break free from the bondage of our egos. The ultimate goal along the path of the Kabbalist is “devekut” in which the seeker’s soul becomes one with God. At this point, the Kabbalist is now a supernatural saint who has equanimity, indifference to praise and blame, a sense of being alone with God, and the gift of prophesy. All of his or her behavior is directed to serving God’s purpose not the ego; there is a union between the individual and the essence of existence (Halevi 1976).

In Christian Hesychasm and other Christian mystic traditions, meditation was practiced to enable “the old superficial self to be purged away and (permit) the gradual emergence of the true, secret self in which the Believer and Christ were ‘one spirit’" (Merton 1960). St Isaac describes the enlightened Christian as one who:

. . . has reached the summit of all virtues, and has become the abode of the Holy Spirit . . . when the Holy Spirit comes to live in a man, he never ceases to pray, for then the Holy Spirit constantly prays in him (Kadloubovsky and Palmer 1969).

In the Sufi tradition of Islam, meditation is a central practice in the attempt to reach a state called/яия or “passing away in God" According to Sufi doctrine, our lives are a thin illusion of habitual reactions, imprisonment by desires, and endless suffering (almost identical in content to Buddhist teachings). We are asleep but we do not know it. Through regular practice of meditation and remembrance of God we can achieve an increased absorption in God. The goal of Sufi meditation or “zikr” is to overcome the mind’s waywardness and random play, and to achieve one-pointedness on God, so that God pervades the mind’s activity.

Perhaps there is an echo across these different paths of a merging or submerging of the self in some absolute. A similar notion exists at the heart of the teaching of the Transcendental Meditation organization. Through this form of meditation, the meditator can achieve the experience of pure Being, devoid of content, thoughts, specific sensations, memories, reactions; one experiences simply what it is to be (Yogi 1995). With regular practice the meditator will achieve “cosmic consciousness,” in which state, awareness of pure Being permeates all of his or her activities during waking, sleeping, and dreaming. In this state of permanent pure awareness, the individual is free from desire and needs for personal gain. He or she acts spontaneously, in accordance with a divine cosmic purpose as an instrument of God. Beyond this, at the highest states of consciousness, the meditator experiences all things without illusion and experiences a complete unity with God and all creation.

Goleman (1977) concluded that there are commonalities both of method and of objectives across these disparate traditions and approaches. He sees the need to retrain attention during meditation as the “single invariant ingredient in the recipe for altering consciousness of every meditation system. At their end the distinction between meditation avenues melts.” Although each path uses different names, Goleman (1977, pp. 117-18)believes that they “. . . propose the same basic formula in an alchemy of the self: the diffusion of the effects of meditation into the meditator’s waking, dreaming and sleep states . . . As the states produced by his meditation meld with his waking activity, the awakened state ripens. When it reaches full maturity, it lastingly changes his consciousness, transforming his experience of himself and of his universe.”

So far we have examined what meditation is, how it is practiced, and what the purpose of meditation is in the various traditions. Now we pause to see how psychologists have understood and categorized these practices.

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